Karim Benzema's France career threatened by sex tape case
Will France footballer Karim Benzema play on home turf in Euro 2016 or are his days on the national side over?
That is the question exercising France's football scribblers. And most think he is finished.
Once upon a time it would have been all about an injury, or a sudden loss of form, or some tragic personal circumstance.
But this is French Football 2015. The issue is rather more sordid.
Incredible though it sounds, it is whether Karim Benzema helped blackmail a fellow French national team-mate over a sexual escapade caught on phone-cam.
The Real Madrid forward has denied wrongdoing, telling police he merely advised Mathieu Valbuena about what to do in a difficult situation.
But investigators believe it is more serious than that, and Karim Benzema faces possible charges of "complicity in a blackmail attempt".
More damagingly, phone transcripts have now been leaked to the press which cast heavy doubt on the official Benzema version.
All in all, the affair has plunged French football into another grave crisis - just as it was emerging from the debacle of South Africa 2010.
That was when the team went on strike during training, and were knocked out of the World Cup in disgrace.
Once again popular anger is being turned on players apparently more interested in money and disreputable friendships than in loyalty to the flag.
And once again, the team's chances on the field look like being gravely compromised.
The story began earlier this year when the Olympique Lyonnais and France midfielder Mathieu Valbuena learned that a sex video featuring himself and a woman had been purloined from his mobile phone.
The person responsible was allegedly Axel Angot, described in the French press as a kind of Mr Fixit for super-rich footballers. He and two others, named as Mustapha Z. and Younes H., allegedly tried to extort unspecified favours from Valbuena.
However Mathieu Valbuena refused to play ball and went to the police, who placed the three suspects under phone taps.
At this point, it is alleged the three tried another tactic. Karim Zenati was approached - an old mucker of Karim Benzema's and a man with convictions for armed theft and drug dealing. He agreed to use his friendship with the Real Madrid star to try to get the message through to Mathieu Valbuena.
And that is how - during training at the national side's camp at Clairefontaine on 5 October - the two footballers had the conversation which is key to the case against Karim Benzema.
Leaked phone transcripts
The transcripts leaked by police to Europe 1 radio are of a phone call carried out on October 6 between Karim Benzema and Karim Zenati. In it the player describes what happened when he spoke to Mathieu Valbuena the day before.
Initially, he says, Mathieu Valbuena did not take him seriously. But Karim Benzema goes on:
"I said to him: 'I'm going to sort it out for you. You got to go see the guy. He'll come. He'll talk to you. I give you my word there's no other copy.'"
Later Karim Benzema tells Karim Zenati:
"I said (to Valbuena): 'If you want the video to be destroyed, my friend comes up to see you in Lyon and you sort it out face to face with him.'"
At one point Karim Benzema describes how Mathieu Valbuena asked him if his "tattoos" are visible in the video.
"I told him 'you can see everything'." But he later admits to Karim Zenati he has not actually seen the video.
The reference to tattoos is unclear. It could be that they are on an intimate part of the body, or that Mathieu Valbuena fears they clearly identify him in the sex-tape.
Karim Benzema goes on:
"I said (to Valbuena): 'My role stops here. Now it's my friend who takes over. He's the one who knows the person with the video. Me, I don't know him. So now if you want to sort this out, give me your number. I'll pass it on and you sort it out with him.'"
According to Europe 1, the tone of the conversation between Benzema and Zenati suggests for them it is all a hilarious prank.
The law will have to decide whether this amounts to evidence of complicity to blackmail.
Karim Benzema's brief has already cried foul, saying the leak was "selective" and left out parts that might exculpate his client.
The defence team will no doubt point out that no actual demand was ever mentioned in the conversation; and there will also be argument over whether passing on a blackmail message constitutes providing help.
But the immediate question is where this leaves Karim Benzema - and Mathieu Valbuena - in relation to the national squad. And here, there are grave doubts indeed.
"I find it hard to see how Benzema can make it to Euro 2016," says Vincent Deluc of L'Equipe newspaper.
He says that though national coach Didier Deschamps has publicly stuck by his striker - saying he is innocent until proven otherwise - the Real Madrid player's plummeting reputation will prove too much.
The case risks dragging on for months or even years, and since South Africa the French football authorities are committed to building up a cleaner image for the game.
Karim Benzema is already connected to a previous squalid affair, in which footballers had sex with an under-age call-girl. He was found innocent after successfully arguing he could not have known her age.
"And I am afraid Valbuena will be collateral damage," continues Deluc. "Can you imagine if Deschamps excludes Benzema but keeps Valbuena?
"The atmosphere in the dressing-room will be appalling - with some of the players blaming Valbuena for the exclusion of their top scorer. Totally unfair on Valbuena, who's an innocent party in all this, but that's the reality."
Karim Benzema's stellar career
- Born in Lyon as one of 10 children in a family of Algerian origin
- Joined Lyon youth football academy aged nine
- Made professional debut in 2005, aged 17
- Recruited by Real Madrid FC from Olympique Lyonnais in 2009
- Played first senior match for French national team in March 2007
- 25 goals for France, 93 Primera Liga goals for Real Madrid
Adding to the difficulty is that under the terms of Karim Benzema's bail, he is not allowed contact with any of the others involved in the affair - including Mathieu Valbuena. So - quite apart from the already tense relationship between the men - training together is out.
For Bruno Roger-Petit of Le Figaro, "Deschamps will have no choice but to deselect Benzema. Any other arrangement will condemn him in the eyes of public opinion... Whatever happens, Benzema on the national side - it's over."
"It's going to be a huge blow," says Darren Tulett, football anchor at BeinSport TV, "because Benzema is Deschamps's number one striker. He is France's Wayne Rooney."
"Together with Valbuena, they've been France's goal-scoring combo for the last couple of years."
Neither player has been chosen for the upcoming friendlies against Germany and England. Benzema is injured. But even if he was not, it is hard to see how in current circumstances Deschamps could pick him.
For next Tuesday's match at Wembley, there is an interesting - and relevant - fact.
The last friendly played there between England and France was in November 2010.
France won 2-1. England's goal came from Crouch.
France's scorers? Benzema and Valbuena.